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WHEN GIANTS WALKED THE LAND IN CALIFORNIA : Barnstorming With Gehrig and the Babe

October 26, 1987|LARRY ENGELMANN | Larry Engelmann, a historian-journalist, lives in San Jose

They were not merely the best team in the American League that year. And they were much more than simply the winners of the World Series. The New York Yankees of 1927, sportswriters, fans and opposing players concurred, were probably the best team that ever played baseball.

They were, it was proclaimed, a dream team, a team for all seasons and for all ages. And since that summer 60 years ago, America has not seen another team quite as sensational as the 1927 New York Yankees.

The Yankee dominance in 1927 came as a surprise to most sportswriters and fans. Although the New York club had won the American League pennant in 1926, it had lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series in seven games.

But in 1927, the new, improved Yankees simply slugged the American League to smithereens. They started winning game after game that spring and kept on winning all through the summer. By July 5, they were 12 games ahead of second-place Washington, and on that day in what the press called a "crucial" doubleheader, the Yankees crushed the Senators, 12-1 and 21-1.

The Yankees finished the regular season with 110 wins and only 44 losses, finishing 19 1/2 games ahead of second-place Philadelphia.

Then they faced Pittsburgh in the World Series. In their first practice session at Forbes Field, the Yankee sluggers hit one ball after another over the distant fences. The Pirates sat in the grandstand, watching in awed silence. One perceptive observer concluded that the Pirates were beaten before they even took the field. He was probably right. The Yankees whipped the Pirates in four.

The team batting average for the 1927 Yankees was .307. Four players drove in more than 100 runs each, but Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were real stars of the club.

Ruth was 32 at the time and near the height of his powers. Gehrig, 24, had also quickly come into his own. Ruth's average that year was .356 and Gehrig's soared to .373, up from .316 in 1926. Ruth hit 60 home runs and drove in 164 runs. Gehrig hit 47 homers, drove in 175 runs and was named the league's most valuable player. Ruth and Gehrig accounted for nearly 25% of the home runs hit in the entire league that season and had more than any other team's total.

After the Series romp, Ruth and Gehrig were in great public demand and Christy Walsh, Ruth's business manager, organized a barnstorming tour so that fans across the country could come out and see them. Major league baseball was still pretty much an east-of-the-Mississippi affair in America in those days and most Americans knew Ruth and Gehrig only through stories and pictures in the newspapers, or silent newsreels. Traveling any great distance to see a major league team play was a luxury beyond the reach of millions of enthusiastic baseball fans.

In late 1926, however, C. C. (Cash and Carry) Pyle, the legendary promoter, had taken tennis star Suzanne Lenglen on a cross-country exhibit tour that netted the French woman nearly a quarter of a million dollars in four months. Walsh realized the financial windfall that might be had simply by giving the public a look at Ruth and Gehrig doing what they did best--hitting home runs. So he put together a national tour for the home run heroes.

The Yankee stars were scheduled to play on opposing teams--the Bustin' Babes and the Larrupin' Lous--to be staffed by local players along the tour route.

On October 11, Walsh's traveling baseball show left Pennsylvania Station in midtown Manhattan for a journey through America's heartland and then out to the Pacific Coast.

The tour gradually made its way across the country, playing day after day in sold-out ballparks of middle-American towns and cities before enthusiastic star-struck crowds. Nearly a quarter of a million fans in 18 states came out to see the Yankee stars shine.

On Friday, Oct. 21, the tour arrived in San Francisco and the next day the exhibition game drew 13,000 fans, the largest crowd yet on the tour. Gehrig hit one home run but Ruth was shut out, much to the disappointment of the crowd.

In Oakland the next day, Ruth again went homerless but Gehrig hit one. On Oct. 24, back in San Francisco's Recreation Park, Ruth redeemed himself by hitting two homers. The crowd--just like the crowds from Brooklyn to the Bible Belt--went crazy and adoring fans mobbed the Sultan of Swat.

The tour went on to Marysville, Stockton and Sacramento, then arrived in San Jose amid much fanfare and public excitement on Wednesday, Oct. 26.

Anticipation and excitement had been building among San Jose's 60,000 residents. All 12 of the city's public schools closed for the game, as did several local industries. The 3,000 fans who appeared at Sodality Park that afternoon were in an expansive and demonstrative mood. The Ruth-Gehrig show elicited the same sort of enthusiasm that was generally seen only on the 4th of July or when the circus came to town.

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